Monday, September 4, 2017

You get what you pay for.....and other cliche's....

"You get what you pay for."  "You can't get something for nothing."  "I wouldn't trust that
cheap stuff, it probably won't work."  "If everyone else was jumping off a cliff........oops,
wrong cliche.  Well we all have heard (or maybe even said) things like this.  The fact, is
a lot of the gear needed for media production is pretty expensive.  Many of us have spent
thousands of dollars on cameras, computers, lighting gear, audio gear, software, tripods, sliders,
drones, lenses, and so on (or maybe that is just me.....shhhh.....don't tell my wife! I mean
you 'gotta spend money to make money.......argh....another cliche!!!) Well, recently I started to get back into live webcasting.  Before starting my own business, I had worked as a videographer/editor for a TV station.  But some of my other duties were directing and switching live TV newscasts and sports.  I had some experience with NewTech's Tricaster and the Sony Anycast.  After I started my own business, I picked up a copy of Wirecast, a software program which claimed to allow you to live broadcast from your computer.  I figured, I knew how to do this too, why not offer it as an additional service?  Back then, you would hook up camera's via firewire cable to your computer.  You could switch between cameras, add titles and stream out to a CDN (Content Delivery Network).

Maybe half a year ago, I picked up a refurbished laptop to use on remote shoots.  I could
back up my cards, use it as a DIT station and even do some editing on it.  I didn't need
the newest and best, so I bought a 2013 MacBook Pro for a really good price off eBay.
And as I started looking into getting back into live streaming, I assessed the laptop as a
webcasting machine.  Now many people will recommend desktops when you want to webcast.
They have more power, you can drop in beefy GPU's and all kinds of capture cards.  They are
great for studio shoots.  But the kind of people that hire me, want me to come to their sporting
event or game, conference or other event and broadcast their event out via their Facebook page, Twitter feed, or YouTube channel.  Other clients will want me to use a CDN maybe set up a
PPV event or similar.  But the common theme, is that I am going into a location outside my
studio (much like most promo film shoots where you film 'on location')  So a laptop would be
much more 'portable' and easy to setup at a variety of locations.  Big bonus, I already have
plenty of cameras as part of my video business  But you can no longer just plug into a computer
via firewire.  And computers do not have multiple HDMI or SDI input ports.  Only HDMI out
ports.  My laptop had a couple thunderbolt ports and a couple USB 3 ports.  I saw that BlackMagic had a device called an UltraStudio Mini Recorder.  It had both an HDMI and SDI port on one side and a thunderbolt on the other.  It cost $137.  I bought two.  Upgraded to Wirecast 7.7.  And suddenly had a two camera live webcasting system.

As I looked into ways to expand the number of cameras I could use, I found several options.
I could get a AJA 4K io.  Which would add 4 more camera inputs via one of my thunderbolt ports.  But that wasn't cheap.  I also found HDMI to USB capture cards.  The most well regarded
seemed to be from Magewell. Although it was much cheaper than the AJA 4K io, it gave you
only one input instead of 4.  And it cost more than twice as much as the UltraStudio Mini
Recorder which gave you the choice of HDMI or SDI.  So I kept looking.  And I came across
this cheap looking device.  Looked similar to the Magewell for about 1/4 the cost.  Now normally I would think 'looks too good to be true' and pass on it.  But the device explicitly claimed that it worked with Wirecast and other streaming programs.  I figured if I used my PayPal account, I'd
have a double layer of protection, one from eBay and one from PayPal.  If it didn't do what it claimed, surely I could get a refund right?  So I took the plunge and ordered the EZCap capture card.  It took two weeks to arrive.  Which is kind of expected as it is coming from a foreign country.  When it got here, I noticed it was nicely packaged.

Once again, I noticed, that on the outside of the box, it claimed to work with most popular 
webcasting programs.....

So I took it out of the box, along with the included HDMI cable.  And wow, it felt cheap.
Like it literally felt like I could snap it in two between my fingers.  Definitely felt like
it would probably break if I dropped it on a hard floor.  Feels like it is cheap, thin plastic.
Definitely a far cry from the UltraStudio Mini's which are made of metal and seem very solid
like production gear should be.  Maybe this is a clue about why it was so cheap.....

But I decided to hook it up and see what happened.  Once I plugged in my FS700 to the 
EZCap, I got a green light on it, which was a nice touch.

And voila.....instantly it was sensed as a capture card in Wirecast.  It gave me 30p or 
60p for frame rates and the following choices for codecs and resolutions.

I have a suspicion that this card was made for the 'EGaming' industry as it defaults to 60P for the frame rate.  Next I tried unplugging my camera.  As happens with the UltraStudio Mini Recorders, this makes a question mark show up in Wirecast...

However, unlike the UltraStudio Mini's, this capture card can be 'hot plugged' which 
means you can just plug the camera back in and it will instantly sense it again.  This is
another nice touch, as you will often have to restart Wirecast to get it to sense the cameras
again with the UltraStudio Mini capture cards.

Now all this testing is something I've done over the past week.  But about an hour after I 
actually got this capture card in the mail, I was scheduled to do a live webcast.
So of course, I decided to try and use it, without having tested anything!  I loaded my
gear into the location.

Then I hooked up the capture cards.....

Several broadcast cameras in the back.....

And a GoPro taped to the wall for a nice reverse angle on the speaker...

All the cameras showed up in Wirecast....

And, believe it or not, everything went great!  It was a 4 hour event and the EZCap capture 
card wasn't even warm at the end of the event!  Unlike the UltraStudio Mini Recorders which 
were both pretty warm.

So what's the verdict?  I'm still really not sure.  On the plus side, it DID work as advertised.
It was sensed instantly, you could hot plug it, and it doesn't even get warm while streaming.
On the other hand, it does NOT feel like it is very rugged....quite the opposite.  On the other 
side, you have the UltraStudio Mini Recorder or the Magewell (which is another version of this
USB to HDMI.) They are made rugged like production gear should be and can take the knocks 
and bumps.  But it's hard to tell for sure.  Although it certainly 'feels' fragile, I can't say for
certain.  When I first got my hands on a Sony FS100 cinema camera, it 'felt' fragile too, but I 
never had an issue with it's durability.  The EZcap does not inspire confidence in the build quality area, but it DOES work and works quite well.  So if you need a budget HDMI to USB capture card, and you tend to 'baby' your gear, it just might be an option for you.  For the rest of you 'live production types' who have a need for rugged gear that can stand up to being knocked around,
you can rest secure in the knowledge, that sometimes cliches are cliche.....because maybe, just 
maybe they have some truth to this one:

"Behind every successful husband....there is a surprised mother in law."  What, isn't that the
way you heard it?

Gabe Strong
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema


  1. The Mini Recorders, the only problem I have is that they run extremely hot, and if you are running longer than a few hours (say 4 or 5) then they will fail. Other than that they are really cool.

  2. I've never had them actually fail but they sure will get hot. I wonder what causes them to fail?